Friday, March 30, 2007

Spring is in full gear!

The fresh air... I love it. Most Beijingers complain about spring; they say it's too windy. Bullocks to that, it's so refreshing. The winds come in from the W and NW, after running over the mountains full of coniferous trees. In other words, it's FRESH! It blows away the smog and replaces it with fresh mountain air. It can be pretty forceful at times, but I think the locals complain because it messes their hair. The only down-side to the winds coming from the NW is that they occasionally carry a lot of silt and dust from the deserts in inner mongolia, just beyond the hills, and that can cause some pretty nasty dust-storms. But so far this year I've only been subjected to said dustiness a couple of times.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Underground Shitty

The day I went to fire an AK-47, my aussie buddy Jason, aka. kung-fu guy (who has now returned to Australia) mentioned an "Underground City of Beijing". I'd heard of many cities with large underground tunnel complexes, Moscow, London, Cu Chi (Vietnam), but I didn't know that Beijing had anything like it. And as it turns out, neither do most of the locals.

I was intrigued, but I had a difficult time finding information about it online, especially addresses and details. That's when my roommate Paul pointed out to me that The Insider's Guide to Beijing is a really good source and has pretty much everything. I had been quite curious about the tunnels in the first place, but after reading the Insider's entry I was hyped.

I should illustrate some of the most interesting points I found. First of all, the tunnels were built in the late 60's and early 70's, as a paranoid backup in case of tensions (nuclear or other) with the USSR. 70,000 workers were employed for the task, the tunnels could hold 300,000 people (40% of the population at the time) and covered 85 km². Within the complex, aside from the bomb shelters, were living quarters, theatres, schools, barracks, infirmaries, arsenals, granaries, chicken and mushroom cultivation facilities, and others. The tunnels are also very extensive, reaching past the airport in the NE and the summer palace in the NW (here, just E of the Fragrant Hills), and reportedly, even to Tianjin (roughly 100km SE of Beijing). Large portions of the tunnels have been converted into civilian uses, including subway lines and stations, mall parking lots and the sort, but many parts of it remain unused and closed off. Only in 2000 did the government open up some parts of it to tourism. More info can be found here. Cool, right?

My experience didn't really touch on most of the cool things I had read. To begin with, I have no idea most regular, non-chinese-speaking people are able to find the entrance. Paul and I wandered around for almost 20 minutes in the general area, asking people if they recognized the address, and having no luck. Finally, a traffic-worker understood what we were talking about, and didn't just point us in the right direction, but led us straight to the entrance (about 10min walking from where we had wound up). On the way, we had conversations about Da Shan and Dr. Norman Bethune... the two most famous Canadians here. If you say that you're Canadian to a taxi driver or a civil servant of any kind, there's a 90% chance they'll bring up either or both of those names. Paul, who's Scottish, doesn't have to go through that because the locals don't seem to know much about Scotland.

The entrance is a shabby, narrow building in the middle of a hutong, an old-style neighbourhood, with nothing fancy about it at all but for a sign that reads Beijing Underground City. In the first room, there are about three or four tour guides waiting for customers. The fee was 20Y each, which is a bit expensive for a tourist site in China, and definitely expensive for what we got. The portion that they've opened to the public is short and disappointing. It took us less than 20min to walk around the designated loop, and all side-paths were locked (though only with some crummy looking padlocks on gates). The only side rooms which were open were a few storage rooms and a classroom. We saw one vent. There are supposed to be thousands. The only redeeming fact was that the tour guides english was pretty good, though her knowledge of the history and facts of the tunnels was only mediocre.

Overall, not nearly as cool as it has the potential to be. The best part may have been seeing all the women tour guides wearing army fatigues.

The only ventilation opening on the tour.

Some relics from the 70's... actually, most of these were just plastic replicas.

A buddhist shrine. This was clearly put in after the Mao era, during which all religious activities were banned.

The widest portion of tunnel.

Some more mostly-fake "periphenilia".

An interesting relief image in the wall, nicely maintained by the exit sign plastered over part of it.

I tried to translate this, but freehand chinese is such a mess.

After the Underground City, we checked out Wangfujing, a happening shopping district within walking distance. The main strip is a road, which is now closed off to cars, and so more like a plaza. There are many western stores and restaurants and book stores, and some pretty popular chinese clothing stores. As well, it houses one of the famous Beijing Duck restaurants, Quanjude, but it's supposedly not nearly as nice and traditional as the original location just a few km W of it.

A walk along the main strip.

This is a famous hotel in Beijing, the Raffles Hotel (aka. Beijing Hotel). There's a bar inside known as the "Writer's Bar", so-named because many famous authors have attended, before attaining fame.

Can't go anywhere without Brad.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Apartment vistas

This is a collection of views from my apartment. Simple and plain. One thing I always enjoy about going to different cities is the general views from living establishments. Some of these are repeats from previous posts.

I'm going to continue to update this one as long as I keep taking different shots. Last updated: March 16th.

From my room

View from my balcony the day after it snowed.(big)

Night exposure shot. A little blurry and it wouldn't merge properly. (big)

Evening traffic.

From the West-facing walkway

The morning I went to the Fragrant Hills. (big)

A zoomed in view, to highlight the hills. The Fragrant Hills are about a quarter of the way from the right side. (big)

The view at night when I got home from the Fragrant Hills. (big)

This is a more typical view, less clear, more smoggy/foggy. (big)

Sun setting on a clear day. (big)

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Fragrant Hills (香山)

To the northwest of Beijing is a range of large hills. From the city, they kind of look like mountains, but they also look like they're really far away. It's a bit deceiving, but all the same a nice touch, and quite a bit larger than anything you'll find near Toronto.

Beijing can be pretty foggy/smoggy/dusty/whatever. Sometimes the visibility is pretty crappy, and I'd been waiting for a nice clear day to check out the Hills. I got excited when it rained heavily all Saturday long, since last time it pseudo-rained (with the exception of Saturday, it doesn't really 'rain' here) the air was really clear on the following day. However, that rain turned into snow, and it snowed heavily through the night.

The snow was perfect snow-fight quality. I think the locals were too scared to challenge me.
The next day was a cold, snowy, overcast day... nowhere near the ideal weather I was looking for. But when I woke up on Monday morning, I saw the sun shining brightly through my window. I checked the weather, and the daily high was 2 degrees, which was good, cold means crisp and clear. I went out to my kitchen to look westward, and there they were, the "mountains" of Beijing. I was dead-tired, running on less than 5hrs of sleep, but my excitement was my espresso and I got ready to go.

The view that morning from our walkway on the 13th floor of my building. (big)

A zoomed in view, to highlight the "mountains". (big)

The Fragrant Hills was originally an empirial getaway, built in the 12th century and added to extensively in later centuries (more info here). There are three main areas: the base, the temple and the peak. The base has a bunch of nice pavillions, ponds, and trees. The Temple of Azure Clouds is a buddhist temple, full of stupas and bodhisattvas, however I didn't see it because I made the mistake of planning to see it after the climb. The peak is a 440m ascent, at the top of a series of stone stairs 2.1km long.

The view from the bus parking lot. (big)

Firstly, I checked out the main grounds. There were some cool ponds and pavillions, enough said. Nothing mind-blowing though.

These can be found at pretty much every cultural site in China.

This led to a cool courtyard... a parallel dimension.

Beautiful stonework.

This pavillion was nice. Looked like there should be a killer whale in it, but there were only a few carp. (big)Another view. (big)

The fattest fish I've ever seen. It was swimming so slowly too. They get overfed by locals looking for tranquility... not sure how tranquil it will be when the fish begin to explode. It has been pointed out to me that she may be pregnant...

There were some quaint doorways here.
A cool pagoda.
I then undertook the climb. I'm not saying that it's really long and high, but it was good excercise, and I haven't exactly been doing many activities here. It took me a bit of mental effort. There are a number of midway stops, and each blocks the view of the top, and I kept thinking I had made it until I'd turn the corner and there was another stretch of upward-leading stairs. But I made it eventually. The journey was a mix of body heat and harshly cold winds, I kept removing and putting on my jacket. I saw one guy going up with no shirt on! When the winds kicked in, I suspect it was -5 or so around the stairs, and it became progressively colder as I approached the top.

Getting to the top was quite a relief, and the view was everything I imagined, making the trip well worth the while.

Zoomed in to see the city. Beijing spreads out so vastly. (big)
Same view, with some labels of where I've been and lived. It's interesting to coordinate it with this map. (big)

The hills further W of the peak. (big)

The structure at the peak. There was a little food-bar in there, to my relief. I had cucumber flavoured Lays... and they were damn good.
The view from that building, facing Beijing.
Looking W behind the outpost building.

That structure on the upper-right of the previous photo.

A video from under that structure.

The trail keeps going to all these other buildings in the distance. I was too tired to try my luck with those.
This may be the only picture I've had someone take of me in China so far, and I'm blinking...
The westward view from my apartment at night when I got home. (big)

I'm going to go back to check the temple and attempt the climb again. It's nice to get out of the city, and the bus ride only costs 8mao (=0.8Y=$0.12). Essentially, it's free. Also, there are some nice trails through the pine forests there, and after a month breathing the Beijing air it was a welcome change.